In this film based on a true story, Ramón Sampedro (Javier Barden), a young fisherman from the northwest coast of Spain, is injured in a diving accident that leaves him paralyzed from the neck down and completely dependent for his care on his older brother and his sister-in-law, who make numerous sacrifices in order to care for him. Twenty-seven years later, in his 50's, Ramón is weary of his life, which he feels is without dignity, and he tries to get legal permission to end it.

His brother is adamantly opposed to euthanasia, but Ramón is comforted and aided in his quest by two women who are drawn into his circle. Julia (Bélen Rueda), a lawyer suffering from a degenerative disease, begins to design a legal case for Ramón but soon falls in love with him (although she seems happily married), and he with her. In a particularly moving scene, Ramón-who of course cannot move--tells Julia that her smell is the beginning of his erotic fantasies about her.

Julia helps him edit and publish a book of his poetry, but then, having agreed to a joint suicide, she mysteriously backs out. Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a young single mother who works in a fish-packing factory and who has had a hard life, also falls in love with Ramón. For some time she tries to change his mind, arguing that his example has inspired her and saved her from a life of despair. Ramón challenges her: "The person who truly loves me will be the one who helps me [commit suicide]."

When Ramón's legal appeal (for the same rights the nondisabled have to end their lives) is lost on a technicality, he seems to have nowhere to turn, but Rosa, converted by her love for Ramón, finally agrees to help him die. He achieves his goal in a videotaped end in which he argues that what he is doing is his right and that no others should be blamed or prosecuted for it, sips poison through a straw, and dies.


What are the rights of someone in Ramón's position? Unlike Terri Schiavo, he is competent, and there is no doubt about his wishes, but he is disabled and thus requires the help of others to realize them. Most nations and states outlaw euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, and in the rare exceptions--the USA's state of Oregon, for instance--the legal provisions tend not to apply, because Ramón is not dying. Finally, Ramón is not being kept alive by medical interventions, so it is hard to argue that the medical establishment is wrongfully keeping him alive and should desist.

What's keeping Ramón alive is his family's love and devotion and their strongly principled refusal to cooperate in his intentional dying. In the face of their passion, Ramón's repeated wish to die, whatever its personal validity, seems weak and occasionally a bit ungrateful--yet, of course, it is his wish. Should he be denied it simply because he is disabled? The film is broadly pro-euthanasia, but one of its finest effects is the ambivalence it creates in us in response to the wide range of strongly held opinions that the film presents as valid.

Only the anti-euthanasia views of the Catholic Church and the indifference of the courts seem ironically deflated. (In a story with many parallels, Richard Dreyfuss's quadriplegic character in the film Whose Life Is It Anyway? succeeds in persuading a U.S. court that he has the right to die, with his dependence on dialysis providing an easier target for the argument of wrongful life.)

Spanish law, with the state and perhaps the Catholic Church underlying it, is a major factor in both the film and the historical story. Sampedro's real physician apparently agreed that his patient had the rights he sought, but he refused to break the law by collaborating with his patient. When Sampedro lost his appeals to Spanish courts, he took his case to the European Commission of Human Rights, but received no satisfaction. (He did not travel to Holland, where notably liberal attitudes toward euthanasia might have helped him.)

Ramón in the film is very concerned with the legal consequences that might be suffered by those who assist him. In real life, the woman called Rosa in the film waited seven years for Spain's statute of limitations to expire before speaking to the press about what she and ten others did to help Sampedro achieve his goal. (Sampedro divided up the task of assisting him so finely to reduce each person's contribution to a size he hoped would not be prosecutable.)

Although Sampedro became something of a popular hero to many Spaniards, the country was fiercely divided by his case, and there is apparently some possibility that the state will try to reopen the case to prosecute "Rosa." Sampedro's story is certainly a sad one, but both versions of it are rich with cultural and more broadly human drama--and the relation between the two stories would make an interesting subject by itself.

(Readers wishing to pursue this subject may search this database under keywords such as "Death and Dying," "Disability," "Euthanasia," "Law and Medicine," and "Suicide." For links see Keywords above.)


In Spanish, with English subtitles. The film won the Academy Award for best foreign film and numerous other U.S. and international awards.

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